Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 – April 16, 1859) was a French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in western societies.
Democracy in America (1835), his major work, published after his travels in the United States, is today considered an early work of sociology and political science. An eminent representative of the classical liberal political tradition, Tocqueville was an active participant in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–1848) and then during the Second Republic (1849–1851) which succeeded to the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte's December 2, 1851 coup, and thereafter began work on The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I. After obtaining a law degree, Alexis de Tocqueville was named auditor-magistrate at the court of Versailles. There, he met Gustave de Beaumont, a prosecutor substitute, who collaborated with him on various literary works. Both were sent to the United States to study the penitentiary system. During this trip, they wrote Du système pénitentiaire aux Etats-Unis et de son application (1832). Back in France, Tocqueville became a lawyer. He met the English economist Nassau William Senior in 1833, and they became good friends and corresponded for many years. He published his master-work, De la démocratie en Amérique, in 1835. The success of this work, an early model for the science that would become known as sociology, led him to be named chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) in 1837, and to be elected the next year to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques. In 1841 he was elected to the Académie française.
Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830–1848), began his political career in the same period. Thus, he became deputy of the Manche department (Valognes), a position which he maintained until 1851. In parliament, he defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade, while supporting the colonization of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe's regime. Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department's conseil général between 1849 and 1851.
Apart from Canada, Tocqueville also made an observational tour of England, producing Memoir on Pauperism. In 1841 and 1846, he traveled to Algeria. His first travel inspired his Travail sur l'Algérie, in which he criticized the French model of colonization, based on an assimilationist view, preferring instead the British model of indirect rule, which did not mix different populations together. He went as far as openly advocating racial segregation between the European colonists and the "Arabs" through the implementation of two different legislative systems (a half century before its effective implementation with the 1881 Indigenous code). After the fall of the July Monarchy during the February 1848 Revolution, Tocqueville was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly of 1848, where he became a member of the Commission charged with the drafting of the new Constitution of the Second Republic (1848–1851). He defended bicameralism (two parliamentary chambers) and the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. As the countryside was thought to be more conservative than the laboring population of Paris, universal suffrage was conceived as a means to block the revolutionary spirit of Paris.
During the Second Republic, Tocqueville sided with the parti de l'Ordre against the "socialists" and workers. A few days after the February insurrection, he believed a violent clash between the workers' population agitating in favor of a "Democratic and Social Republic" and the conservatives, including the aristocracy and rural population, to be inescapable. As Tocqueville had foreseen, these social tensions eventually exploded during the June Days Uprising of 1848. Led by General Cavaignac, the repression was supported by Tocqueville, who advocated in favour of the "regularization" of the state of siege declared by Cavaignac and others measures leading to the suspension of the constitutional order.
A supporter of Cavaignac and of the parti de l'Ordre, Tocqueville, however, accepted an invitation to enter Odilon Barrot's government as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 3 June to 31 October 1849. There, during the troubled days of June 1849, he pleaded with Jules Dufaure, Interior Minister, for the reestablishment of the state of siege in the capital and approved the arrest of demonstrators. Tocqueville, who since February 1848 had supported laws restricting political freedoms, approved the two laws voted immediately after the June 1849 days, which restricted the liberty of clubs and freedom of the press. This active support in favor of laws restricting political freedoms stands in contrast of his defense of freedoms in Democracy in America.
Tocqueville then supported Cavaignac against Louis Napoléon Bonaparte for the presidential election of 1851. Opposed to Louis Napoléon's December 2, 1851 coup which followed his election, Tocqueville was among the deputies who gathered at the Xe arrondissement of Paris in an attempt to resist the coup and have Napoleon III judged for "high treason". Detained at Vincennes and then released, Tocqueville, who supported the Restoration of the Bourbons against Bonaparte's Second Empire (1851–1871), quit political life and retreated to his castle (château de Tocqueville). There, he began the draft of L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, publishing the first tome in 1856, but leaving the second one unfinished.
Tocqueville's penetrating analysis sought to understand the peculiar nature of American political life. In describing America, he agreed with thinkers such as Aristotle and Montesquieu that the balance of property determined the balance of political power, but his conclusions after that differed radically from those of his predecessors. Tocqueville tried to understand why America was so different from Europe in the last throes of aristocracy. America, in contrast to the aristocratic ethic, was a society where hard work and money-making was the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites, and where what he described as crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.
The uniquely American morals and opinions, Tocqueville argued, lay in the origins of American society and derived from the peculiar social conditions that had welcomed colonists in prior centuries. Unlike Europe, venturers to America found a vast expanse of open land. Any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life. Sparse elites and a number of landed aristocrats existed, but, according to Tocqueville, these few stood no chance against the rapidly developing values bred by such vast land ownership. With such an open society, layered with so much opportunity, men of all sorts began working their way up in the world: industriousness became a dominant ethic, and "middling" values began taking root.
This equality of social conditions bred political and civilian values which determined the type of legislation passed in the colonies and later the states. By the late 18th Century, democratic values which championed money-making, hard work, and individualism had eradicated, in the North, most remaining vestiges of old world aristocracy and values. Eliminating them in the South proved more difficult, for slavery had produced a landed aristocracy and web of patronage and dependence similar to the old world, which would last until the antebellum period before the Civil War.
Tocqueville asserted that the values that had triumphed in the North and were present in the South had begun to suffocate old-world ethics and social arrangements. Legislatures abolished primogeniture and entails, resulting in more widely distributed land holdings. Landed elites lost the ability to pass on fortunes to single individuals. Hereditary fortunes became exceedingly difficult to secure and more people were forced to struggle for their own living.
This rapidly democratizing society, as Tocqueville understood it, had a population devoted to "middling" values which wanted to amass, through hard work, vast fortunes. In Tocqueville's mind, this explained why America was so different from Europe. In Europe, he claimed, nobody cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth, while the upper classes found it crass, vulgar, and unbecoming of their sort to care about something as unseemly as money; many were virtually guaranteed wealth and took it for granted. At the same time in America workers would see people fashioned in exquisite attire and merely proclaim that through hard work they too would soon possess the fortune necessary to enjoy such luxuries.
But, despite maintaining, with Aristotle, More, Montesquieu, and others that the balance of property determined the balance of power, Tocqueville argued that, as America showed, equitable property holdings did not ensure the rule of the best men. In fact, it did quite the opposite. The widespread, relatively equitable property ownership which distinguished America and determined its mores and values also explained why the American masses held elites in such contempt.
More than just imploding any traces of old-world aristocracy, ordinary Americans also refused to defer to those possessing, as Tocqueville put it, superior talent and intelligence. These natural elites, who Tocqueville asserted were the lone virtuous members of American society, could not enjoy much share in the political sphere as a result. Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power, claimed too great a voice in the public sphere, to defer to intellectual superiors. This culture promoted a relatively pronounced equality, Tocqueville argued, but the same mores and opinions that ensured such equality also promoted, as he put it, a middling mediocrity.
Those who possessed true virtue and talent would be left with limited choices. Those with the most education and intelligence would either, Tocqueville prognosticated, join limited intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society which have today become the academic or contemplative realms, or use their superior talents to take advantage of America's growing obsession with money-making and amass vast fortunes in the private sector. Uniquely positioned at a crossroads in American History, Tocqueville's Democracy in America attempted to capture the essence of American culture and values.
Though a supporter of colonialism, Tocqueville could clearly perceive the evils that blacks and Indians had been subjected to in America. Tocqueville notes that among the races that exist in America:
Toqueville contrasted the settlers of Virginia with the middle-class, religious Puritans who founded New England, and analyzed the debasing influence of slavery:
Tocqueville concluded that removal of the Negro population from America could not resolve the problem as he writes at the end of the first Democracy:
In 1855, he wrote the following text published by Maria Weston Chapman in the Liberty Bell: Testimony against Slavery
According to him assimilation of blacks would be almost impossible and this was already being demonstrated in the Northern states. As Tocqueville predicted, formal freedom and equality and segregation would become this population's reality after the Civil War and during Reconstruction — as would the bumpy road to true integration of blacks.
Assimilation, however, was the best solution for Native Americans. But since they were too proud to assimilate, they would inevitably become extinct. Displacement was another part of America's Indian policy. Both populations were "undemocratic", or without the qualities, intellectual and otherwise, needed to live in a democracy. Tocqueville shared many views on assimilation and segregation of his and the coming epochs, but he opposed Gobineau's scientific racism theories which the latter had espoused in his essay on The Inequality of Human Races (1853–1855).
Tocqueville thought the conquest of Algeria was important for two reasons: first, his understanding of the international situation and France’s position in the world, and, second, changes in French society. Tocqueville believed that war and colonization would "restore national pride, threatened," he believed, by "the gradual softening of social mores" in the middle classes. Their taste for "material pleasures" was spreading to the whole of society, giving it "an example of weakness and egotism"." Applauding the methods of General Bugeaud, Tocqueville went as far as saying that "war in Africa" had become a science: "war in Africa is a science. Everyone is familiar with its rules and everyone can apply those rules with almost complete certainty of success. One of the greatest services that Field Marshal Bugeaud has rendered his country is to have spread, perfected and made everyone aware of this new science.
Tocqueville advocated racial segregation in Algeria with two distinct legislations, one for each very separate communities. Such legislation would eventually be enacted with the Crémieux decrees and the 1881 Indigenous Code, which gave French citizenship to the European settlers only, while Muslim Algerians were confined to a second-grade citizenship.
Tocqueville's views on the matter were complex, and evolved over time. Even though in his 1841 report on Algeria Tocqueville admitted that Bugeaud succeeded in implementing a technique of war that enabled him to defeat Abd al-Qadir's resistance and applauded him on one hand, he opposed on the other hand the conquest of Kabylia in his first Letter about Algeria (1837). In this document, he advocated that France and the French military leave Kabylia apart to preserve a peaceful zone so as to try and develop commercial links. In all his subsequent speeches and writings he kept on being against any attempt towards intrusion into Kabylia.
During the debate concerning the 1846 extraordinary funds, Tocqueville denounced Bugeaud's conduct of military operations, and succeeded in convincing the Assembly of not voting the funds in support of Bugeaud's military columns. Tocqueville considered Bugeaud's will to invade Kabylia, despite the opposition of the Assembly, as a seditious move in front of which the government opted for cowardice.
Tocqueville includes in his report on Algeria that the fate their soldiers and finances depended on how they treated the natives and established a sound government. Creating peace in the country would reduce the number of soldiers. However, by treating the inhabitants of Algeria as an obstacle then the two sides would be subject to much conflict and strife.